Australia and the United States are collaborating on a joint project to discover new planets capable of sustaining human life, slated to deliver results by the middle of the decade.

A proposed telescope will search for planets around Earth’s closest neighbour Alpha Centauri, a triple star system located just over four light-years away but is three-times closer than the next nearest sun-like star.

Operations began in April under a joint mission with scientists from the University of Sydney, Breakthrough Initiatives in California, Saber Astronautics in Australia and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

This will mark a major step for Australia’s space industry as the nation attempts to discover what numerous countries have tried for many years.

Project leader Professor Peter Tuthill from the Sydney Institute for Astronomy said: “Astronomers have access to amazing technologies that allow us to find thousands of planets circling stars across vast reaches of the galaxy.”

“Yet we hardly know anything about our celestial backyard. Getting to know our planetary neighbours is hugely important,” he said.

These planets could be our “best prospects” for finding possible signals of life, Professor Tuthill said.

Specific to the project, the telescope needs to be more finely tuned for discovering smaller planets.

Dubbed the Telescope for Orbital Locus Interferometric Monitoring of our Astronomical Neighborhood (TOLIMAN), it will use a diffractive pupil lens that makes it easier to detect star movements which could lead to “telltale signs” for orbiting planets.

“Our TOLIMAN mission will launch a custom-designed space telescope that makes extremely fine measurements of the position of the star in the sky,” said Dr Eduardo Bendek, a member of the team from NASA’s JPL.

“If there is a planet orbiting the star, it will tug on the star betraying a tiny, but measurable, wobble.”

Thousands of exoplanets – small planets that orbit the outside of the Solar System – have been located by NASA’s telescopes, but the TOLIMAN project requires a “real leap in precision measurement,” said Pete Klupar, chief engineer of Breakthrough Initiatives.

Breakthrough Initiatives is a suite of scientific and technological programs in search of extraterrestrial life, founded by Israeli science and technology investor and philanthropist Yuri Milner.


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